On July 1 the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning countries that intentionally disrupt citizens’ internet access. The resolution on “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet” emphasises the UN’s position on digital rights and reiterates the UN’s stance that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online,” in particular the freedom of expression covered under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Within days of the passing of this UN resolution, a social media blackout that lasted approximately four hours hit Zimbabwe.
This social media blackout occurred on the morning of July 6, 2016, the same day when Zimbabwe experienced a stay away, a non-violent form of protest against the economic and political situation currently prevailing in the country. During the social media blackout subscribers to Telecel, NetOne, ZOL, TelOne ADSL and Econet could not access their WhatsApp accounts. Only subscribers with virtual private networks could access WhatsApp, proving that the problem did not actually lie with WhatsApp, but with Zimbabwean service providers’ respective links to these specific social media applications (apps).
The cause of last week’s internet access disruptions is still unknown. Supa Mandiwanzira in his capacity as Minister of Information Communications and Technology issued a statement distancing his ministry and government from the incident, and he goes as far as stating that his ministry has been fighting to keep social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook online. On the other hand, mobile network operators and internet service providers offered shallow apologies for the disruption in service and none of the apologies identified the cause of the disruption. Subscribers mainly reported difficulty in accessing social media applications; social media apps rely on the internet to receive and send messages, and blocking of these applications does amount to disruption of internet services. According to the digital rights group Access Now, an internet shutdown is the intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them (electronic communications) inaccessible or unusable, for a specific population, or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.
Internet shutdowns are on the rise globally. Last year Access Now recorded 15 incidents of internet shutdowns globally, 2016 has seen 20 incidents recorded so far from around the world. This rise is largely due to the central role that the internet in general and social media in particular have taken in the dissemination of information of a political nature. Threatened by this kind of online political discourse, governments such as those of Uganda, Ethiopia, Algeria and Chad have resorted to internet shutdowns and social media blackouts. In Zimbabwe, social media as an enabler for political discourse started gaining popularity in 2013 with the Facebook page curated by Baba Jukwa. However, 2016 is the year when social media really gave a voice to the voiceless citizen, as evidenced by the fact that, unlike past stay aways that were organised and spearheaded by opposition parties, the stayaway on July 6 was organised by non-partisan citizens solely using social media apps. Applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Periscope were instrumental in getting the message across to the Zimbabwean people to stay away from work, school and other public commitments in protest.
Disruptions to internet access, primarily control the flow of information specifically by hindering access to information; this hindrance is a clear violation of section 62 of our Constitution, which protects every person’s right to access information. Access to information on how the stay away was developing in different parts of Zimbabwe was restricted for the duration of the social media blackout. Last week’s events serve as proof that the right to freedom of assembly and association found in section 58 of our Constitution is applicable in online environments such as social networks and not just confined to physical spaces. Closely related to section 58 is the right to demonstrate and petition peacefully as well as the right to freedom of expression as found in sections 59 and 61 of the Constitution, respectively. Freedom of expression includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds through the internet and other digital technologies. The internet, along with social media, has enabled the enjoyment of all these rights and a deliberate disruption in internet services or electronic communications is, therefore, an unjustifiable limitation of fundamental rights and this in itself is wrong.
In conclusion, General Comment 34 of the UN Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, emphasises that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. Shutdowns disproportionately affect all users, and unnecessarily restrict access to information. This General Comment is relevant in light of statements issued by various government representatives after the events of July 6.
The common undercurrent in these government statements is that the use of social media to rally people with common goals together amounts to abuse of social media and that such abuse will be punishable by law or where possible lead to a Chinese style social media ban in Zimbabwe. This may be a valid course of action where social media is a tool used to peddle hate speech, defamatory language, and other forms of inflammatory messages. However, when social media is a platform used by people calling for government accountability in a manner that condemns violence, as well as all forms of illegal activity that does not amount to abuse of social media; any social media ban or disruption of internet access under those circumstances amounts to unwarranted censorship and gross restriction of fundamental rights.
l Kuda Hove is the legal and information officer at Veritas, he writes in his personal capacity.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kudathove